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Plans for a 3-mile downtown-LSU tram have now morphed into a 10-mile express bus route between the university and a future north Baton Rouge hub near the site of the old Earl K. Long Hospital.

In February, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced she would not continue with efforts to build a streetcar along Nicholson Drive as her predecessor Kip Holden had sought. Rather, she promised a system of bus rapid transit — or BRT — that could serve a larger number of East Baton Rouge residents.

The Capital Area Transit System already had plans to build BRT routes down Plank Road and Florida Boulevard. The mayor decided the new project should also be overseen by CATS, whose board chairman, Jim Brandt, announced the proposed route during Tuesday's board meeting.

The new plan is to run an express route starting at LSU, up Nicholson to Government Street near the River Center, then east to 22nd Street a few blocks from Baton Rouge Magnet High, then north onto Plank Road and finally concluding near its interchange with Airline Highway. Brandt estimated the total cost would run between $40 million and $50 million.

The CATS board took no vote Tuesday. Brandt said authorities are still addressing a few concerns, but he wanted everyone to be in the loop.

Broome's staff referred questions to Chris Tyson, head of the Redevelopment Authority. Tyson said his agency will be working closely on the project to find blighted properties along the corridor that can be upgraded to provide more housing and commercial activity close to public transportation. The effort will be to "redefine the urban core," he said.

The first matter will be to convince the federal government to lend support to the BRT project as they had the tram. The city-parish received a grant to perform the environmental study for the tram, and when it was concluded in 2016 the Metro Council pledged $10 million to build the streetcar, said consultant Bryan Jones, associate vice president at the firm HNTB.

The Federal Transit Administration accepted the tram project, allowing the city-parish to receive matching funds for the work. The bus line will have to be vetted again — especially the areas that weren't on the original route — though Jones said there's precedent for the FTA to switch the mode of transportation, and leaders were optimistic they could get approval.

Brandt expects decision to come down "in a matter of months." In the meantime, he and CATS CEO Bill Deville said they will be working on the Plank BRT route. They hope to hire a planner to design the platforms at the board's next meeting, then the new electric buses will arrive by the end of the year, and if all goes according to plan the route should be ready by next March or April, they said. However, they noted they've got to coordinate with the new, longer route that would connect to Plank, which could impact the timeline.

BRT lines are different than regular bus routes. In addition to making fewer stops, their platforms have more amenities, and operators are required to have a bus arrive at each stop at least once every 15 minutes. There's been discussion of giving the buses signal priority so they don't wind up sitting at red lights, and Deville has said he'd like to see more BRT routes throughout the city, with smaller vehicles, bikeshare or Ubers available to help riders make the last leg home.

This article originally ran on theadvocate.com.

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